“Being poor is an appalling condition in which one is deprived of even the basic human needs,” says Amy Sedaris, before pausing and adding, “Is one way to view it! But being poor can also be a magical opportunity for creative resourcefulness!” Then, because this is At Home with Amy Sedaris and not, say, Martha Stewart Living, the hostess slips her feet into a pair of baked potatoes (“Tater toes!”). The fourth episode of Sedaris’s characteristically cracked out truTV show is themed “Entertaining for Peanuts.” At one point she literally uses peanut shells as finger prosthetics after a cutlery mishap. The entire absurdist enterprise is permeated with this air of doing what you can with what you’ve got. Jokes aside, it’s what makes At Home a refreshing antidote to an increasingly alienating lifestyle industry.
The show’s tagline— “if you want to be the perfect host, accentuate the positives, and medicate the negatives”—manifests in full nostalgic-surrealist burlesque mode, with Sedaris in 1950s house dresses knocking around her candy-colored home (if houses married, this one would have wed Pee-wee’s playhouse), creating cut-rate 1970s cocktail party eats and deranged crafts to entertain everyone from lecherous businessmen, in one episode, to a rich uncle—who is not in fact rich at all—in another. In the latter episode, Sedaris emerges looking like a scarecrow that has fallen on hard times—garish costume makeup, tattered hair, thread-bare dirndl—and claims she is over budget and had to style herself. It’s the kind of bold grotesqueness that defined Strangers with Candy, Sedaris’s darkly satirical cult hit, which was inspired by ‘70s motivational speaker and ex-drug addict Florrie Fisher.
At Home reaches for the same era, when lifestyle gurus were more accessible and easier to imitate. Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s in North Carolina, Sedaris was taught to cook from a young age, and devoured local hospitality shows like At Home with Peggy Mann and The Bette Elliott Show. “That’s when women were starting to get their own businesses,” she told The News & Observer. “I just liked the idea of this woman being in her house and inviting you into her house, and she would just teach you domestic things—and sometimes she’d get a little political.” This is the epoch of Julia Child’s artless French cooking, the cigarette-filled kitchen of Two Fat Ladies, and the butter-filled recipes of The Galloping Gourmet. Sedaris also researched old-school entertainers like Lawrence Welk and Dinah Shore, as well as vintage educational programs and public access shows, which inspired At Home’s many flourishes and side skits, which add a delightful weirdness to the show’s charm. There’s the “Lady in the Woods,” who makes necklaces out of foraged bits of forest when she’s not scolding her lesbian lover; there’s an instructional crafting video in which the subject is neatly decapitated.
The idea for the series marinated over decades, Sedaris told The New York Times. “I look at it like a super stew that’s been in the making for 20 years.” But the timing has turned out to be especially apt. We live in a world awash with celebrity lifestyle gurus—the most notorious being Gwyneth Paltrow, who in 2008 launched Goop, a new age brand she cooked up after her father died of cancer. “Why do we all not feel well?” she asked surreally at her inaugural wellness summit last year. “Why is there so much cancer? Why are we all so tired?” In Paltrow’s wake, an array of equally high-priced celebrity brands have emerged. There was Honest by Jessica Alba, for the natural baby, followed by Blake Lively’s short-lived Preserve and Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James.
The progenitor of this starry deluge is the grand dame of unattainable lifestyles herself, Martha Stewart. In the ‘80s, the stockbroker parlayed her knack for hostessing into a series of cook books, which expanded like the airiest soufflé into homemaking columns and TV appearances, culminating in an eponymous series, Martha Stewart Living, all of which prompted New York magazine to name her the “definitive American woman of our time.” So what does that make all the other American women, the ones who are unable to emulate Stewart because they are not rich enough or white enough? “I just don’t relate to those shows,” Amy Sedaris told TIME of Stewart and her ilk, adding, “Sometimes they’re things no one makes, and I can’t afford half the ingredients. I felt outside of them.” Instead she likes cheap home remedies that “really work”—like Milk of Magnesia face masks—and prefers the knockoff to the designer. Sedaris also revels in mistakes, because mistakes mean relatability, possibility, reality. “I saw Ina Garten juicing a lemon on Barefoot Contessa and she had this gadget she plugged into the wall,” she told W, “and I was like, ‘Why doesn’t she just stick a fork into it and twist it?’”
Sedaris has always fulfilled her love of hosting by eschewing elite extravagance for grounded practicality. She has published two books—I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence (2006) and Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People (2010)—which make a hilarious mockery of Stewart-style domesticity, but also include tips you can actually use, like how to get blood stains out of your underwear, or how to grieve (Xanax is mentioned twice). For a time, Sedaris even ran a catering business out of her home, but that proved to be untenable. “I was making cupcakes, and then they became really popular. But I always wanted to sell them for a dollar, and everyone else was charging $3 or $4. Then butter went up, and then I got a cockroach problem,” she told the Times. “So I moved on to cheese balls. And then I got a huge mouse problem, and I was like, ‘I’m done with making food inside my apartment.’”
These are not the class of problems Martha Stewart or Gwyneth Paltrow face, but the rest of us can relate. Sedaris may not be the everywoman—she is a blonde celebrity, after all—but she presents herself as a flawed human being, and her advice acknowledges that she is also speaking to flawed human beings. For her, being your best self does not require you to be any more than what you already are, even if what you are—single, childless, low income—is branded unacceptable by the prevailing tastemakers. At Home with Amy Sedaris is marked by a slightly manic, absurd surreality, but its familiar, striving heart is where Sedaris is most at home. “I feel like if I am going to make a pom-pom, I’m going to do the best I can,” Sedaris recently told The A.V. Club. “And it’s going to look like shit, but at least it was real.”